This Week in History: ‘The Engineer’ is assassinated

Hamas bomb-maker Yehiyeh Ayash was credited with the development of suicide bombing tactics.

At the height of Oslo and months after Rabin’s assassination, a master Hamas bomb-maker met his fate when explosives planted in his phone decapitated the terrorist.
On the morning of January 5, 1996, the Palestinian sitting atop of Israel’s most-wanted list answered a mobile phone call from his father in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya. A few seconds into the conversation, after a surveillance plane overhead apparently verified that it was indeed Yehiyeh Ayash speaking on the phone, a radio signal was sent from the plane and the cellular phone exploded, killing the Hamas terrorist bomb-builder responsible for dozens of Israeli deaths.
Known in Israel and the Palestinian territories as “the Engineer,” Ayash was credited with the development of many suicide bombing tactics employed by Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, as well as engineering ways to build explosives with materials commonly found in the territories.
Among other attacks, Ayash was believed to have built the explosives used in over half-a-dozen deadly suicide bombings in Israel, including the Afula bus bombing, the Hadera bus station bombing, the bus number 5 bombing in Tel Aviv, and bus bombings in Ramat Gan, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The assassination was a huge accomplishment for the security services. “The Engineer” had managed to evade capture and assassination by Israel multiple times over three years by using master disguises, secret hideouts and trusting only a small circle of family and friends. It would ultimately be that close circle that betrayed the top terrorist.
Believing that Ayash was in the Gaza Strip for several months, the security services began searching for a way to get the Hamas terrorist. According to numerous reports, it was the uncle of his close friend whom he was living with, a man who had previously worked with the security services, who managed to locate and pass him the booby-trapped cellular phone that decapitated him. By the time Ayash received the phone call that ended his life, the uncle, Kamal Hamad, had disappeared from the region, and was reported to have been given passage to the United States.
It was not the first attempt made on the Engineer’s life. According to reports, the army and security services narrowly missed him by just minutes in several precision strikes during the previous two years both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His knack for disguise saw him dressed as a haredi Jew, a Muslim woman and a Jewish settler in successful attempts evading capture and death. But by the time he was killed, it was not just Israel that was hunting him, Arafat’s Palestinian security services were also reportedly seeking the master terrorist bomb-maker.
Against the backdrop of the Oslo Accords, which were signed less than two-and-a-half years prior, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin just a few months before, and taking place only two weeks before the first Palestinian elections in the Oslo period, the assassination of Yehiyeh Ayash was a consequential event for the peace process, terrorism and Palestinian politics.
Occurring in one of the most hopeful times in the history of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes, and just weeks after a truce between Hamas and Yassir Arafat’s PLO ahead of long-anticipated PA elections, expected to extend a six-month lull in terror attacks against Israel, the assassination led to yet another wave of terror that killed nearly 60 Israelis.
When the traditional 40-day Muslim mourning period ended following the terrorist’s assassination, Hamas undertook a wave of vicious and especially deadly terror bombings in Israel. In the period between February 25 and March 4 of that year, four bombings rocked Israel, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Perhaps as a result, Ayash’s family home in the West Bank town of Rafat was demolished by the IDF using explosives, the first demolition since the beginning of the peace process several years earlier.
The killing of Yehiyeh Ayash had several effects on Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process. Although few, if any, Israelis questioned the legitimacy of taking out a terrorist with the blood of so many civilians on his hands, questions were raised on the timing and consequences of the assassination. The dozens of Israelis killed in the wave of revenge attacks launched following the Engineer’s death may have been in response to the assassination, but they were not a deviation from Hamas’ modus operandi or the normalcy of terrorism that Israel used to experiencing at the time. While Ayash may have been responsible for technological and tactical advances in Palestinian terrorism, terrorism existed before the Engineer joined Hamas and continued after his death.
The assassination has also been pointed to as a factor that strengthened Hamas and legitimized its terrorism and violence among the Palestinian people. Additionally, the fresh wave of terror that many perceived to be a sign of the failing peace process was one factor in then-prime minister Shimon Peres’ defeat in elections that brought Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into his first term as Israel’s premier.